From forest to flask (2.0)

For a pictorial timeline of this story published earlier, click here.

William M. Dowd photos

In most of life’s undertakings, patience is a virtue. In whisky making, it is a requirement.

And, in this era of worldwide efforts to improve the sustainability of the environment, it is becoming an absolute necessity.

It was a gray day as we stood on the Victors Point ridge high above a gentle curve in the Mississippi River not far from the boyhood Missouri home of the iconic writer Mark Twain. Dr. Bill Lumsden picked up an acorn, held it between two fingers and observed to me, “Just think, in a hundred years or so this could be part of Glenmorangie whisky.”

Now, that is long-range thinking. It also is part of The Glenmorangie Co.’s corporate mantra: sustainability of the forests, a zero-waste production stream, and a continued excellence of product.

We were in the mostly-rural U.S. state of Missouri -– far from the state’s two true population centers of St. Louis and Kansas City. It was part of a Lumsden-guided tour for a small international group of beverage journalists to more fully understand the yin and yang of Scotch whisky and wood.

The tour itself offered a study in smalltown Americana surrounded by heavy oak-growth woods in the Ozark Mountains. There, Glenmorangie works with the Missouri Conservation Department as well as private commercial loggers to select white oak trees for the barrels that eventually will hold its new whiskies -– after, of course, they have been seasoned by helping American bourbon mature for four to eight years.

The wood cannot be discounted in the whisky-making process, no matter whether it is Scotch, American, Irish, Canadian or anything else. Most in the industry concur that aging in wood accounts for perhaps 60% of the taste of the finished product and, of course, for all of the beautiful hues of gold, amber and copper that result from the chemical interaction of spirit and wood.

“I’ve experimented with putting new-make whisky into various woods,” said Lumsden. “You never know when something pleasing will come out of it.”

Lumsden had the opportunity in the mid- to late-1990s to try swamp, burr, chinkapin and post oaks in prototype barrels that had been air-dried for 18 months.

“There’s a high degree of spiciness in the swamp oak, and the burr oak has a pleasantly oiliness, almost buttery. The others didn’t provide much difference from American white oak.”

Most people refer to Lumsden as the master distiller for the highland distillery located in Tain, Ross-shire, Scotland, but his title recently was broadened to “head of distilling and whisky creation.” That’s a fancy way of saying he is Morangie whisky.

Any complaints from traditionalists about his experimentations?

“Oh, some, but I put it down to jealousy,” Lumsden said with a twinkle.

While the vast bulk of wood used for aging Glenmorangie whiskies is American white oak, German Black Forest oak also is used. With perhaps 90 different types of oaks in the world, plus the fact that numerous distillers also employ second-use sherry oak casks for aging some products, wood can be Lumsden’s playground for a long time to come.

The process for taking wood from the forests to the whisky aging warehouses is as straightforward as it has been for centuries: Select the right tree, cut and shape it into the proper dimensions for barrels, assemble the casks, toast or char them, seal them against leakage, and send them on their way.

What has changed tremendously, however, is the quality and precision of each step in a world that only in recent decades has become attuned to the necessity for preserving natural resources.

Kristen Goodrich is a resource forester with the state of Missouri who supervises, among other tracts, the Edward Anderson Conservation Area outside the little town of Hannibal where Mark Twain created the immortal characters of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. I met her on the Lumsden trek.

“We have to manage the forests or they’ll die out in wide patches,” she explained. “That’s why we cut on maybe a 15-year cycle, during which we can track growth of various trees, thin out the stands of wood where we need to so the proper amount of sunlight can get through to the stronger trees, and so we can prevent disease. Luckily, this area is fairly pest- and disease-free.”

The foresters attempt to encourage slow growth in trees, which results in fewer large holes in the wood and thus stronger, less porous wood for barrels. In addition, slow growth oak has more vanillins and oak lactones that help flavor the whiskies, and white oak contains a substance called tyloses that naturally blocks the sap-conducting pores of the wood.

Nutrient-poor soil is an inherent growth inhibitor, but the amount of competition among trees for growing space, water and sunlight is managed by selective cutting and trimming.

Once the trees are felled, they’re shipped off to sawmills, such as a large facility in nearby Novelty, Missouri, one of three mills owned by the Cardwell Lumber Co., and located about 20 miles from nowhere in particular.

It’s a state-of-the-art complex, opened in December 2007. Leroy Cardwell, founder and owner of the mills, explains it this way:

“The saying is that you have to build three houses before you really get it right. Well, this mill is our third one and I think we absolutely got it right.”

Much of the automated equipment was designed and built on the grounds by Cardwell’s son, Mark, an obviously gifted craftsman. Sawing, trimming, pressure fitting … virtually everything is guided by computers, although a sizeable workforce continues to be needed to coax and prod and direct the wood through the maze of steps, a good thing in an area with few opportunities for employment.

Some of the less mechanical steps are done by a group of Amish workers. Those men, distinguished by the plain clothes, straw hats and beards in their sect of what generally is known in the U.S. as “Pennsylvania Dutch,” are among the best workers because of their closed society’s widely praised work ethic.

Nevertheless, the smoothness of the operation is guided by the custom-built machinery.

“Mark crafted everything in that building up there,” said Bob Russell, pointing to an unprepossessing metal structure on the edge of the sawmill yard. “They hauled the pieces down here to the main mill and everything fit perfectly.”

Russell is manager of mill operations for the Blue Grass Cooperage Co., the largest barrel-making facility of its kind in the world. The 63-year-old Louisville, Kentucky, company -– owned by Brown-Forman -- works with Moet-Hennessy-owned Glenmorangie to meet barrel specifications. Russell is a walking encyclopedia of wood cutting techniques and wood waste management processes.

“One of the things that has saved a large percentage of wood is the thinner, sharper saw bands that have been installed here at Cardwell,” he explained. “With a narrower cut, there is less sawdust and fewer splinters, and consequently fewer pieces of wood wasted.

“Actually, in the final count there is zero waste overall because even scraps, splinters, chips and sawdust have other uses such as for fuel, animal bedding, and other products.”

At the mill, logs are cut into manageable lengths, stripped of bark to reduce the amount of blade-dulling dirt and pebbles, cut in half and then in half again in what is known as a quarter-sawing technique rather than flat sawing. It exposes the grain in the proper direction to promote good leaching during whisky aging. Those pieces then are run through devices that shape them into barrel-length staves for the 50-gallon casks.

Some shorter scrap becomes “headers,” the name used for both the tops and bottoms of the barrels. They are planed to create tongue-in-groove edges, pressure-squeezed into squares, then cut into circular shapes with the guidance of a laser-light circle.

Then it was on to the Blue Grass Cooperage where a half-million barrels are turned out each year. It is where the actual barrel shape comes into existence, with an assembly line of younger workers arranging rings of 32 staves with such grace and economy of movement the process appears almost dance-like.

“This is a job for young men,” explained a supervisor. “It pays better than a lot of other jobs, but it’s physically difficult and after six or eight years you often move on to other stations.”

Indeed, as we moved through the process it was apparent that the less physically wearing tasks were handled by older workers -– things like moving barrels on and off conveyers, driving forklifts, stacking headers that had been coated with beeswax then run through a charring flame.

The charring of the barrels in huge gas-fired ovens is a mesmerizing sight. Rows of open-ended barrels are shuttled through the chambers on steel conveyer belts, pausing long enough for roaring tongues of flame to leap through them in controlled bursts that impart the charred interior that will release the characteristics of the wood into the aging whiskies.

As the barrels come out of the oven, the pop and hiss of burning wood can be heard, showers of tiny sparks quickly cooling as the ambient temperature of the factory floor counteracts the 500°F (260°C) atmosphere the barrels had just left.

Just as the wood that went into making the barrels has had its provenance coded, stamped and logged, each barrel receives a serial number and can be tracked for its entire useful life.

So, in the final analysis, is all this maneuvering really worth the effort?

To quote the aforementioned Mr. Twain, “Too much of anything is bad, but too much good whiskey is barely enough.”

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